At the time of his death, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the wealthiest man in the United States. He built a shipping and railroad empire valued at over $100 million, equivalent to hundreds of billions of dollars in modern value.
Vanderbilt began life in a family of very modest means but rose to become perhaps the greatest of the United States railroad barons. He first went into business for himself at the age of 16, borrowing $100 from his parents to purchase a sailboat for transporting passengers and freight between New York City and Staten Island. The business was successful, and he eventually obtained a government contract to supply the forts being built around the city. He later went into the ferry business with a fleet of steamships and also purchased existing railroads, which is where the majority of his fortune was built.
Late in life, he began to engage in philanthropy. His most visible effort in this area was a donation of a million dollars to the Nashville Central University, which renamed itself Vanderbilt University. During the Civil War, Vanderbilt also donated his largest steamship to the Union Navy to combat the Confederate ironclad Virginia. He was inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame posthumously in 1999.